Orange County Outlaws

    I am a suburban rabble-rouser. I am a broken-hearted muscle-car poet. I’ve seen drugs and fights and jail before, and I ain’t scared. I live in a run-down hotel, and my life is at a dead end. I don’t know how to love. I wear a black leather jacket.

    If it seems like Orange County punk legends Social Distortion made their decades-long career out of singing the same song repeatedly (a much more heart-wrenching version of the above), it’s because they did. Skim the band’s catalog and you’ll find blues, rockabilly, country and, of course, plenty of punk, but you won’t find songs about sunny days or springtime pastures. Not with madman Mike Ness as a frontman, anyway. The Fullerton, Calif., native’s turbulent life, which has been marked by drug abuse and violence, more or less requires that Social Distortion take on a tough-guy persona — it is the only one they know.

    Social D had their beginnings in the early days of Orange County punk — 1979 — when the music was exploding in New York and Los Angeles. Formed with brothers Rikk and Frank Agnew (who went on to form the Adolescents, another seminal O.C. punk outfit) and Casey Royer, Social Distortion made a name for themselves playing the fledgling punk clubs of Huntington and Newport beaches. Punk was still a new thing then, and the suburban authorities, who thought leather jackets and spiky hair were a new kind of gang sign, responded harshly, creating the punk-as-outlaw image that Social Distortion would use for the rest of their career.

    Ness and his mates recorded Mommy’s Little Monster, their full-length debut, in 1982. “Another State of Mind,” the album’s first single, was one of the only punk videos played on MTV. A documentary of the same name followed Social Distortion and Washington, D.C., hardcore band Minor Threat on a wild cross-country tour, telling the story of punk from the dingy dancehalls where it was performed.

    Even back then, the basic Social Distortion sound had already formed. Dennis Dennell’s furiously distorted strumming supported Ness’ tentative guitar solos, while an oft-changing set of bassists and drummers provided the rhythmic base. Ness’ gruff, smoky voice was his band’s greatest asset from the beginning, and one that seems to have only gotten better with age. When Social Distortion made it big in 1990 with their self-titled Epic Records debut, it was largely due to the success of bad-boy lament “Ball and Chain,” one of Ness’ (and California punks’) greatest songs. Though (or perhaps because) it runs along the same rebellious streak as all of Social Distortion’s music — in the song, Ness tries to escape his old, damaging ways but finds himself unable to do so — “Ball and Chain” was a defining moment for the band. Ness and Co. were no longer young kids fighting against the homogeneity and repression of suburbia, but grown men trying to find a place for themselves in a world they didn’t understand or even necessarily like.

    That theme would carry Social D through the ’90s. After a long silence following 1996’s White Light, White Heat, White Trash, Social Distortion returned in 2004 with Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll, their finest album in years. It doesn’t offer many surprises thematically — Ness is still struggling with those inner demons, though apparently he’s gotten them better under control now — but his songwriting is still as good (and simplistic) as ever. In the album’s best song, “Footprints on my Ceiling,” Ness seems finally to accept the grief of rebellion that’s haunted him his whole life: “Everybody wants a lover/ Nobody wants to uncover/ What may lay deep beneath a sometimes painful past/ My heart is heavy slowly sinking/ I redirect my desperate thinking/ And kiss her red full lips like I did the very first time.”

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